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Mom, Dad, Thank You for Everything

Column by Joanna Stone

Arts Editor

When people finally get their 15 minutes on TV, it seems the typical thing for them to say "Hi Mom, Hi Dad." I don't know why people always do this, but I think it has something to do with wanting to show off to one's parents, to make them proud and to say, "thank you."

Today is Commencement. We're not all on television, but we are on stage in a sense, and certainly will find our way into several video cameras. So, I've decided to write this column for the parents -- my parents in particular, but everyone else's parents as well.

I've been at MIT for the last two Commencements and both times, I remember being struck by all the parents walking around beaming. There were moms and dads everywhere, all appearing so proud of their children. I felt jealous. I couldn't wait until it was my turn to have my parents here. I couldn't wait to show them off.

It's funny, because it doesn't seem so long ago that I was going through that adolescent stage -- constantly embarrassed by the mere presence of my parents. They always seemed to say the wrong things or wear the wrong things or not laugh when they should, or God forbid, laugh when something wasn't even funny, and then compound the tragedy by laughing really loudly so that all in the general vicinity would turn around and stare. But a lot has changed since the days when I would walk several paces behind mom and dad, hoping no one would associate me with them. Then, I believed my parents were a direct reflection upon me, and if they didn't conform to the sitcom ideal then people might think poorly of me.

Now I look to them and the reflection I see is the pride they derive from me mirrored by my own pride and admiration of them. These are my parents! The terms "MIT Mom" and "MIT Dad" have never meant more. Today is our Commencement, and it is my greatest wish that my parents' names be read along with those of this year's graduates.

I don't think I'm alone in my deep desire to thank my parents for their contribution to my MIT degree. In the language of MIT, which has validated words such as "tool" and "punt," the word "hell" has become a recognized synonym for the Institute. Today, we are all about to be released from this place; our duration in "hell" has ended and all of us have survived. Without our parents, some of us would not have gotten through the all-nighters at Athena, the five cups of coffee in one night (and the ensuing caffeine addiction), the endless problem sets, and the fact that there are more undergraduates awake on the MIT campus at 4 a.m. than there are undergraduates enrolled at say, Williams College.

MIT is unique, to say the least, and stress-provoking, to say the obvious. I can't count how many late-night hysterical telephone calls my mother has had to endure. I would begin those calls, which invariably took place between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., by asking, "Did I wake you?" -- as if there were a more than .01 probability that the answer would be negative.

"That's okay honey, what's wrong?" my mother would reply, bearing her "MIT Mom" cross like a true saint. "I hate this place, I hate Athena, I hate heat transfer and I hate chocolate-covered expresso beans," I would rattle off with mounting panic, "I can't do all my work, I'm going to drop out of school, I'm going to be a failure for the rest of my life!"

My mother would always calmly put things in perspective: not finishing a problem set was not life-shattering; I was overreacting because I hadn't slept in 27 hours. Even if the worst happened and I failed thermodynamics (or whatever course I was complaining about at the moment) that wouldn't make me a failure, and even if I decided to drop out of MIT, my mother would still love me and be proud of me. Ironically, it was the last thing my mother always said, permission to drop out of MIT that invariably pulled me through. She'd let me know that with or without an MIT degree, I was assured of her unconditional love and respect. And it was knowing this that gave me the strength to keep on pursuing that degree.

And then there's my dad who went to Yale for Law School and his PhD in English, who tells me, "I couldn't do any of that science and numbers stuff you do! I'm so proud of you, I go up to people on the street I don't even know and tell them, my daughter got above class average on her thermodynamics test ... then I tell them you didn't get a Marshall Scholarship ... None of them had ever heard of a Marshall Scholarship, but they were all really impressed about the thermodynamics." Through his humor, my father could always cheer me up.

Not everyone's parents could give them the time and superhuman patience my parents gave to me. But, most people have someone who's been there for them these past four years, whether it be a sibling or a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a professor whose door was always open. MIT is a hard place, and for many of us, getting this degree took more than just brilliance, sweat, and tears. It also took having the support of someone else -- our parents, our friends, teachers. For those people, it seems almost appropriate that we tear off a piece of our diploma -- hand it over and say, "this is yours, you earned it with me." If I could, I'd take my diploma and write on it, "MIT Mom, MIT Dad, I love you."